The №1 Mistake PMOs Make (& How To Counter It)

Brendon Baker
6 min readJun 18, 2021

Building an Ivory Tower

The Ivory Tower is a metaphor with such a wonderful visual. A tower so tall, so protected, that it stands higher than the clouds. Truly isolated and disconnected from the world around it.

“To live or be in an ivory tower is not to know about or to want to avoid the ordinary and unpleasant things that happen in people’s lives.”

‘Ivory Tower’ — Cambridge Dictionary.

For a PMO, it represents a disconnect from their client base, with both the Project Managers at the metaphorical coalface, and the Executives steering the ship. After all, no project manager or executive cares all that much whether your latest risk management framework contains 4 or 5 steps.

Interestingly, Ivory Towers manifest within PMOs through two key means: Academic Self-Gratification and ‘Us and Them’ cultures.

Academic Self-Gratification

Academic Self-Gratification is the archetypal Ivory Tower. A group of usually bright people spending all day discussing complex ideas to complex problems, without actually achieving anything.

To paint you a picture here, let me tell you about one of the most dramatic instances of this I’ve ever seen.

A few years ago, a large government department set up a portfolio management office. Its mission was multifaceted and relatively undefined.

This PMO was special though. It had died and been rebirthed 4 time in just 6 years. That in itself is exceptional! For clarity here, when I say rebirth, I’m talking about a minimum 80% staff flush. This PMO had been through a lot over these iterations — from producing 40-page monthly status reports (and no, that’s not an exaggeration), to producing absolutely nothing.

This PMO’s latest iteration was particularly interesting for our discussion here. The PMO’s leadership had a penchant for perfectionism. Couple this with a natural shyness and you end up with the greatest roadblock known to mankind. If we are talking Ivory Towers — then this PMO ended up building the Burj Khalifa.

This PMO had spent over a year with a team of 6 well paid contractors, writing, refining and then re-writing the PMO’s library of frameworks and toolsets. Over this time not a single project had used, or even seen these frameworks or tools.

The PMO had managed to do something phenomenal — it had short-circuited the Administrative Death Cycle by refusing to offer any sort of value at all! To give you a sense of the waste here — this PMO would be costing that organisation about $2 Million p/a in wages alone. And, while $2 Million isn’t all that much in the project world — it’s enough that you shouldn’t be overtly wasting it.

Oh, and if you are wondering if I saw the frameworks that this year long concentrated effort produced — the answer is yes. All I can say is that if you had guessed that they were overworked and overly complex — then you would be correct.

While we will get to the strategies to counter Ivory Towers a little later, there is a quick moral to this story. As the Million Dollar Consultant Alan Weiss says:

“Progress not perfection. If you are at 80%, then move forward.”

Us vs Them

Us vs Them is a slightly different Ivory Tower. While Academic Self-Gratification is rather useless, Us vs Them towers are openly destructive.

For those of you lucky enough to have never seen an Us vs Them culture at play, let me tell you another story.

An ICT Project Management Office at a large, prominent Australian Federal Government Department were facing an uphill battle. Over the last few years many of their projects and project managers had shifted from Waterfall (sequential) to Agile (iterative) project delivery methods. However, the PMO had no agile experience, and were now stuck on how to support, monitor and govern the new delivery methods. Unfortunately, this disconnect wasn’t viewed as a learning opportunity, but rather, it was creating a toxic ‘PMO vs the World’ culture.

Picture this. Your first day with this PMO. You are introduced to the team and given a walkthrough of their tools and systems. You are then informed, quite matter of factly that:

“The projects managers are all idiots.”

How’s that for customer service?

An Us vs Them culture is dangerous because it creates an absolute misalignment between your PMO’s goals and those of your clients. Further, it restricts your team’s ability to empathise — accelerating your PMOs progress through the Administrative Death Cycle.

So, what can we do?

The counter to building an Ivory Tower can be summarised in just two words:

Empathy and Experience.

The Ivory Counter: Empathy and Experience

The counter to an Ivory Tower is a 1, 2 combo.

Client Involved Co-Design

It’s crucial that you involve your PMO clients in the development of your PMO’s offering. This isn’t just to ensure that your offering solves an actual client need, but it also creates empathy within your team for your client’s struggles.

Until proven otherwise, you and your team should always assume that your clients are working with the best of intentions and to the best of their ability. Effective Co-Design sessions will give you a true insight into the struggles your clients are facing, and the role you and your team will play in resolving them.

Staff Rotation or Shadowing

While empathy creating co-design is effective, there is nothing that speaks more to the creation of empathy than direct experience at the coalface within one or more projects.

A strong commonality across Ivory Tower PMOs is that all or most of the PMO staff usually have little to no real project experience. When you haven’t been hands on with a project, then you can never really understand the imperfections of the reality the projects managers need to operate within. Like the way that time is chewed up fighting figurative fires, and why the only way to keep the project registers up to date is by staying back and completing them at 10pm at night.

Without that understanding it is incredibly easy to get stuck in the theory.

So, to truly counter an Ivory Tower culture, a High Value PMO creates and then embeds a staff rotation program. Project Managers come into the PMO, and PMO staff rotate into the ‘field’.

Not only does this rotation provide real time experience, but it also ensures a consistent stream of ‘fresh blood’ into the PMO. This fresh blood is often the catalyst for ongoing improvements to your PMO’s services and solutions.

Now, if your organisation is one where a rotation program just isn’t plausible, then consider establishing shadowing. Build into your staff and resource planning a 20% ‘field experience allowance’ where the staff in your PMO work with and for the projects you are serving.

Crumbling the Tower

An Ivory Tower culture is often an early indication that your PMO is on track for demise. However, a simple 1, 2 punch combo will effectively counter this.

The great thing is that these counters can be played both proactively and reactively. What this means is that no matter how tall your PMO Ivory Tower is — there is always a way back down.

This is a excerpt from Creating High Value PMOs: Your Essential Guide.

Order Your Copy Here: https://qualityinitiative.com.au/high-value-pmos/

The Number 1 Mistake PMOs Make — Quality Project Initiative

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Brendon Baker

As a leading expert in the field, and with over $10 Billion in change experience, Brendon is converting others to a radical new idea... Keep it simple.